Bronx community takes on the real estate industryPrintEmail to a Friendby

Published on People’s World, by Frank Farkas, December 24 2009.

… Bloomberg and the Related Companies, a real estate corporation with nationwide investments, were planning to retrofit the landmark Kingsbridge Armory, no longer in use, with a mammoth shopping mall in one of New York’s most densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods.

The community needed decent jobs at living wages, not the part-time, minimum wage, no-benefit version of employment for which shopping malls, housing national chain stores, are notorious and which Related, the Bloomberg administration and its defenders insisted was better than nothing at all. In fact, nothing is better, the community reasoned, because the race-to-the-bottom model meant working more than one job just to be able to pay the rent, and because the volume of trade the developers were hoping to generate would inevitably mean more traffic, more congestion, and more pollution. If the jobs produced paid only the minimum wage, then instead of prosperity all around, the community agreed, the future would bring more poverty as well. And as everyone knows, the Bronx has more than enough of that.

But first, some of the history. The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), a coalition of community residents, churches, and labor unions, led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), was formed in 2005, after the Bloomberg administration launched the latest in a series of redevelopment plans for the armory. KARA struggled for the better part of this year just to get the developer to meet with it to negotiate a binding settlement involving jobs at living wages, preferential hiring for Bronx residents, non-interference in unionization, recreation space for families and other community benefits, under what has come to be known among grassroots organizers as a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

The demand by KARA for a living wage of $10 per hour with benefits and $11.50 per hour without benefits for all workers hired by the developer or any of its retail tenants became the centerpiece of its proposed CBA. As community residents see it, a living wage agreement means escaping poverty without having to work multiple jobs and without having to double up in order to keep a roof over their heads. For Related, the living wage was a non-starter. The developer, in lockstep with the Bloomberg administration, stubbornly refused to discuss the subject …

… “It is no longer an acceptable business model to allow billionaire companies to take major tax breaks to do business in our borough while they create little more than part-time, low wage jobs without benefits or much chance for advancement,” said Diaz regarding the significance of the City Council vote. “What we wanted all along was to have the armory developed in such a way that not only the developer and the tenants benefit, but also the people of the Bronx. What today’s vote confirms is that we can no longer support any project that only ensures profits for the developer while leaving the people of the Bronx in poverty.”

“This is a bittersweet victory,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, KARA leader and community resident. “We want the armory developed. Unfortunately, the Bloomberg administration chose to kill the project rather than require the developer to sign a binding Community Benefits Agreement that guaranteed living wages and other benefits for the community. Our billionaire mayor pulled the plug on the redevelopment to prevent a publically subsidized development from including living wage jobs, the right to join a union, community and recreation space and the exclusion of a big box grocery store. He believes government has no role in setting mandatory wage requirements. According to him, there should be no minimum wage law, no child labor law, and no protections for working people. He is on the wrong side of history.”

KARA’s forceful advocacy of the living wage during City Council hearings produced even more dividends. The arguments garnered such widespread and partisan support for the living wage among the progressive, predominantly Hispanic and African American City Council members that they rushed to introduce living wage legislation during the same week as the Dec. 14 vote. The bill’s sponsors, with KARA’s enthusiastic support, hope to make New York one of over 200 cities across the countries that have now adopted living wage ordinances … (full text).

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